For those of you contemplating dropping carbs and processed foods to give the Ketogenic Diet a crack, I thought I’d offer my experiences. To give you a back drop, I’ve been on a few different diets through the years. Generally, my goal has been to try out a new way of eating to see if it helped me lose weight and if it was something that I could adopt as a lifestyle. In fact, adopting it as a lifestyle was my biggest hope. I’ve tried Atkins, South Beach, the 6-Day Body Make Over, and now the Ketogenic Diet. Atkins and the 6-Day Body Make Over were initially used to quickly drop weight, but I wanted to see if the core principles could be combined with other diets. This is the longest stretch that I’ve ever gone with one of these diets, and I’m starting to think about how and when I might move toward a diet that includes carbs.
Ketogenic Diet Basics
Fat…this is your main source of energy. Protein is next, and then carbs. The goal is to to keep the total number of net carbs (carbs that are not fiber or sugar-alcohols) no more than 20-30 grams a day. This way your body burns through all of its sugar stores. Your sugar stores consist of blood sugar and glycogen stores (often in water weight). Once your body has burned through these, it switches gears. This is when your liver starts converting fat (consumed fat and body fat) into energy. Thus, it produces ketones that your body uses for energy (ketosis). However, because your brain needs a tiny bit of glucose each day, your body will convert a small amount of protein (your muscle or protein you consume) into a replacement carb. Regardless, it’s much easier to lose fat on this diet because you’re constantly burning fat. If you keep your caloric intake slightly below your daily allowance, losing weight is pretty easy and consistent. At first, your weight loss is water loss, but after a week of 20g of carbs or less a day, you should be in ketosis and the fat starts to get used.
Learning to Eat Differently
It wasn’t too bad in the beginning because I was very motivated, but I had to watch everything I ate like a hawk because I wasn’t used to eating in this limited way. Most diets involve a great deal of carbs so it can be a bit tough, but doable. As time went on, it became easier because everything became a habit. Sure, there were tendencies to go toward carbs, but my high motivation made it easier to stay away. If your motivation is lower, it’ll be tougher. After a while, I quickly knew what I need to stay away from or limit. As with any diet that is contrary to the mainstream diet, it requires us to cook a lot for ourselves, and that’s what I’ve needed to do. To make it easier on myself, I focused on how to cook on the weekend and use left overs for much of the week (dinners and lunches). Fatty meats, cheeses, oils, butter, cream in my coffee, and lots of carefully chosen veggies are typically found in my meals. However, if you’re not a meat eater, this diet may pose some additional challenges for you. If you’re vegan, well, I have a hard time seeing this diet working for you. Regardless, it is possible to adjust to, but you’ll need to cook.
Feeling Hungry is Different
When I get hungry…I’m just hungry. There isn’t a madness the comes up in me where I have to get food. And when I’ve become really hungry and eat, I don’t eat much more than I normally would. I used to go overboard when I ate carbs, but I don’t now. Also, it seems to take a little bit longer before my hunger goes away. My guess (this is totally a guess) is that it takes my body longer to process what I’m eating. Therefore, I’m thinking that there might be a delay between eating and the nutrients getting into my system. So, the hunger can linger a bit but it does go down quickly. Also, my emotional eating has really gone way down, which is awesome.
Emotional Eating and Our Brain
When we eat, especially higher carb meals, our brain gets much higher doses of dopamine and serotonin. Both of these neurotransmitters are “feel good” chemicals. I think the real reason that Americans are so overweight is because our mental health is poorer. Anxiety, depression, and too much stress bring our “feel good” chemicals down. As a result, food becomes a natural anti-depressant…but then we feel depressed again as we gain weight. This is a very sick cycle and one to be cautious of. Now, I’m definitely an emotional eater and so I’ve been known to binge, which I’ve loved and hated, but with this diet I have never binged. I have emotionally eaten a little, but I don’t get the same neurological benefit (increases in serotonin and dopamine) as I used to. Consequently, eating doesn’t reinforce feeling better. Instead, eating is to eat, and then I’m done. I really love this diet for this reason because I was really tired of the intense ups and downs.
Lots of Veggies and Keeping Regular
One thing that I love about this diet is that I am forced to eat a lot more veggies. It’s pretty awesome. Roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, broccoli with some cheese, creamed spinach, etc. There’s so much you can do. Now, some veggies are higher in carbs, and this is where people who take this diet on have to watch their consumption and choices. Especially if your focus is to drop weight. And sadly, when you’re trying to keep the carbs super low, fruits are really an option, unless you have….maybe….one bite. But I tell ya, you can make stir-fries like crazy. What’s more, veggies help you stay super regular and this will help things move through your system and make you feel thinner. Some people have complained that this kind of diet isn’t good for your digestive tract, but I’m not so sure this is true. Mine feels great.
Better Energy and Water
When I was eating any and all carbs, my hunger would frequently spike and sugar cravings were intense and frequent (I can be a bit of an emotional eater, so that never helped). However, when I cut out sugars and ate only brown rice and quinoa, the spikes of hunger and cravings were less, but kinda still there. After a couple of weeks on this diet, my cravings totally tanked and my energy became level and enjoyable. I don’t have severe dips in my energy and I don’t need my afternoon caffeine to help me deal with my post-lunch hangover. Now I don’t feel supercharged, but my energy is very steady. When I exercise (which need to happen more frequently), it’s a little bit of an adjustment. However, I can’t give you a full report because I have yet to get to the gym on a regular basis and exercise like I used to. But if you do a search, I’m sure you’ll find others who report their experiences.
Also, my water intake is awesome and you need to keep the water flowing. This helps keep your energy higher, your blood cleansed so the ketones don’t build up too high (if you have extra ketones that are being used for energy), and as with any diet, water will help digestion. I’ve found that I can consume about 50-70 ounces a day and I’m good. I’ve consumed less, but don’t feel as good. I’ve consumed more and don’t feel any different compared to my 50-70 ounce average. Now, this doesn’t count the water that I get from my veggies or the coffee that I have in the morning.
Calories Still Count…They Always Do
Some people have been under the impression that this sort of diet gives us permission to be gluttons, but this is not the case. Calories still count and if you over eat, you’ll gain weight, but it’s a little harder. Too much protein will especially screw you up because the body will convert excess protein into a sugar and then use that for energy while storing (aka, gaining) fat. So be aware of your caloric intake and remember that the more weight you lose, the less your daily intake will be. If you exercise, then you can burn off a bit more and give yourself a little more leeway with your portions.
How Fast Do you Lose Weight?
I started this diet December 1 2015 and I was at 216 lbs (I’m 6′ tall by the way). Within the first month, I went down to 210. Over the course of the next four months, I lost 15 more pounds and am now at 195. My ultimate goal is to reach 180. I’m sure that I could have lost this weight quicker, but I was purposefully trying to make this a lifestyle change and as a result, I haven’t restricted my eating or caloric intake too much. I eat what I eat and when I’m hungry. So the weight loss has been gradually and there have been times when I’ve stalled with weight loss. There are a lot of different factors that go into losing weight so there isn’t a way for me to tell you how quickly you’ll lose it. Obviously, if you’re exercising the weight loss will go quicker. But if you haven’t been working out, you may see your weight loss stall because you’re gaining muscle while losing fat, and muscle is heavier than fat. If you’re in this situation, it’s better to go by how your clothes fit rather than what the scale says. However, I would recommend getting a scale that does a full body scan. This way you can see your fat and muscle percentages change. I’ve purposely not worked out because I wanted to see how my weight would change without gaining muscle. Now that I’m 5 months in, it’s time for me to start working out again…and this will help me reach my goal quicker.
Eat Earlier in the Day
One thing that I’ve found that really helps me drop weight again after stalling a bit is to make sure that I eat my last meal as early as I can. I generally wake up at 5:30am and am hope around 4:30 pm. I’ve made it a point to eat right when I get home so I have a solid 12 hours before consuming anything of consequence. When I’ve done this, it helps my body burn more fat because it has a longer period of time without food. If you try this, you’ll see a noticeable different in how slim you are the next day. This is because things have moved through your body and then it starts to chip away at your fat stores. When I wake up, I get some calories from cream in my coffee but I don’t have my morning snack until 7:45am. This means that my body has gone 12-14 hours without food. But what’s awesome is that I’m still not crazy hungry. Of course, I miss eating with my fiancee, but sometimes I’ll snack with her when she has dinner at 8pm. I don’t eat anything too big, mostly low calorie veggies. And having veggies so often, especially things like broccoli, helps the food move through. This also leads to us feeling thinner because we don’t have 2 days worth of food hanging out in our intestines.
Is the Keto Diet Hard on Your Liver?
First off, I haven’t conducted research or combed through various articles, so know that my thoughts are speculative, but I believe informed. When we’re eating processed carbs and sugars, our pancreas gets hammered because it has to produce so much insulin. At the extremes and over many years of abuse, diabetes sets in. With ketosis, our liver is doing all of the work. So, might the liver get a bit overwhelmed? Sure, it might but I’m not sure. If we approach this logically, then my guess is that it would after a while because it’s doing all of the work to process fat. The Keto Diet is the extreme opposite of a high carb diet. The ideal diet, which is my long-term goal, is to eat some carbs but to refrain from processed carbs (pasta, breads, etc.) and stick with brown rice, beans, and quinoa like carbs. I think this is the ideal balance and probably the healthiest for our bodies. Additionally, portions always need to remain balanced. Too much of anything taxes our system and will surely lead to problems over time.
What About Alcohol?
I love wine, beer, creative cocktails, and liquor. The variety of flavors and experiences in all of these are awesome. However, if you’re going on the Keto Diet or plan to stick with it as a lifestyle, you have to make some pretty big adjustments. With wine, beer and cocktails, you’ll get sugar and this isn’t good. However, if you drink straight liquor (I’m a bourbon and rye whiskey kinda guy), you’ll fair much better. However, ketosis will be interrupted as your body and your liver process the alcohol. And alcohol does get used as energy first when you consume it. If you haven’t eaten recently and you go for a drink, your buzz will be stronger but your body will burn through it quicker. So, there are pros and cons to this. Just know that ketosis will be paused until the alcohol is gone.
Headaches and Including Carbs Again
Last but not least we need to talk about headaches. A few months into this I made a batch of cream cheese frosting for a coworker and as an avid cook, I try what I make to ensure that it’s good enough. I debated on what to do here…and I ended up deciding to take a small spoonful to taste the frosting. Wow was that a mistake. Within five minutes I experienced the worst headache in my life. My head was pounding like mad and my whole body felt completely off. So not only was I in pain, but I felt slightly lightheaded. What was really cool about this experience was that it helped me change my relationship to sugar. Before this, sugar and fat together was the most delicious thing ever. Now, it meant pain. Talk about reducing your desire for sweets! I also did a little test about a month ago where I tried some carbs, just to see how it felt. I had a few falafels while at work and felt a little light-headed within an hour. It wasn’t that bad but I did feel different. To be clear, I’m not saying that this was a bad thing. My purpose in trying the falafel was to see how my body would react and if I could jump to something like that when I start to incorporate carbs again.
What This Taught Me…
… is that reincorporating carbs needs to be a slow, deliberate, and a well thought out process. Especially if I don’t want to return to having big cravings. In fact, I think it’s important for everyone to pay more attention to how their body feels when they consume certain foods. And I strongly recommend that you pay attention to how you feel, regardless of what diet you try. And as always, check in with your doctor to make sure you’re not in danger of having some major problems. Chances are they won’t like the Keto Diet, but it can’t hurt to check in with them and use their knowledge as a resource.